In her new novel, Nerve, wilderness adventurer Eva Holland shares how we can conquer paralyzing anxiety when life throws us challenging curveballs.
Eva Holland is the sort of writer who enrolls in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, billed as “the world’s coldest and toughest” race, because, in her words, “It’s just a hard thing to understand without trying it, so I was curious.” That, and she wanted to put the Extreme Polar Training course she’d done for an earlier story to the test. This spring, the 38-year-old, Whitehorse-based freelancer and regular contributor to Outside, should’ve been embarking on another marathon, that of a book tour, but because of Covid-19, she’s staying home. While it’s a stressful time to put a first book out into the world, the topic is strangely, unintentionally, timely. In Nerve, Holland faces her greatest fears, and looks to science for an explanation and a cure.
Yukon winters, with their 18 hours of darkness and lows down to -40 Celsius, aren’t much of an issue for Holland, nor are summer’s mosquito swarms and grizzlies. Before making the move to Whitehorse in November 2009, she’d visited her cousin, Nathan, to get a taste of it and encountered firsthand one of the region’s scariest things. An Ottawa-native, Holland had a new interest in day hiking and only a handful of rudimentary camping trips to her name. She told Nathan she liked to hike, he said he knew a good route—so off they went. “He took me on a really challenging 60-kilometre, three-day backpacking trip,” she says with a smile. “I was chafed and blistered. There were creek crossings and grizzly bears. It was amazing, but definitely a bit of a trial by fire.” (It’s also only later in our conversation that Holland casually mentions those grizzly bears they saw were a mother and cubs.)
Becoming outdoorsy wasn’t Holland’s reason for relocating to Whitehorse. Having just started her freelance writing career, she came hoping the Far North would give her rich stories to tell, aided by a lack of competition. She didn’t expect to stay this long, but fell in love with the community. Here, friends form defacto families and even holiday celebrations aren’t bound by bloodlines. “I find people really open to each other in ways that I didn’t always find everywhere else,” she says. “If you live alone, you’re going to have at least three Christmas invitations.” The community, which seems to spend most of its time and money on wilderness adventures, was also her invite into the backcountry and all the extreme feats therein.
“Basically, it’s been about wanting to hang out with my friends and these are the things they do all the time so I had to,” says Holland, on why she’s since taken up backpacking, sea kayaking, mountain biking and climbing. Nerve opens on an ice climb with friends Ryan and Carrie and a dozen others in 2016, Holland’s first time joining what was an annual February excursion to northern British Columbia, and readers are promptly introduced to Holland’s longest-standing fear: heights. During a fairly innocuous part of the climb, she was overcome with panic and couldn’t push forward.
Holland traces her fear of falling to when she was three or four years old. Standing at the top of a long escalator at Toronto Pearson Airport, she took a step and froze. As the leg on the stair stretched too far from the leg on the platform, she tumbled down a few serrated metal steps. But her somewhat acrophobic father remembered another incident, after she finished the book, which might have been the inciting one that set her fear response in motion: “We were on a road trip and my Mom and I went tearing down some trail in a park, I guess we almost ran off a cliff and my dad freaked out. He raised that with me quite recently as a possible source of my fear of falling from heights, and I was like, ‘Gee, Dad, thanks for the belated note on that,’” she laughs.
The escalator and the ice climb trip had triggered the same paralyzing panic in Holland, but it’s a little different when you’re an adult. In this case, with some calm coaching, she walked away only rattled and embarrassed, but it could’ve been worse—she could’ve put her friends in danger. That pushed Holland to begin her fear-conquering experiment. Though, it was another, worse fear, realized less than a year before that, that gave her the strength to try.
In July of 2015, while on another backcountry trip with friends in northern B.C., Holland learned her 60-year-old mother, back in Ottawa, had suffered a stroke that she wouldn’t recover from. Be it a loved one’s or one’s own, mortality is a fear everyone lives with, but for Holland it’d felt especially acute. Her mom, Katherine, lost her own mother when she was only ten and seemed to carry an unshakeable weight because of it. In the book, Holland writes, “I carried a tangled thread of fears about my mom. I was afraid that I would hurt her, afraid that I would lose her, and afraid that, in losing her, I would become like her. I loved her, I admired her, but I didn’t want to carry that same sadness in my own life.”
Three months after her mother’s death, Holland headed to Montana on a solo hiking and camping trip to help herself heal—she’d always found the wilderness had that effect—but being alone in the vastness only seemed to punctuate the void. She detoured to Wyoming and Colorado to see friends, circled back up to Alberta to do a writing residency and made new friends, then continued her road trip through Washington, Oregon and finally California, where she met up with two pals to explore Joshua Tree National Park. She felt herself moving beyond grief and growing more resilient.
Still, there was another fear to contend with. On the final stretch of a drive home from Arizona in her mom and stepdad’s old Subaru, not far from where she’d panicked on the ice-climbing trip two months earlier, Holland hit a hailstorm that ended with her upside down in a ditch. She was unscathed physically, but as the third bad car accident she’d had within a couple of years, emotionally she felt fractured by her fear. That night, in the hospital for observation, she decided to write the book.
As Holland sifts memories to understand her fears in Nerve, she also explores the science behind it all. She looks at how the brain reads and responds to fear. She tries promising therapies: one involving rhythmic eye movements and the other popping a pill post fear exposure. She researches a woman with a rare disease that targets the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for the fear response) which prevents her from feeling fear, and a man perceived to be fearless.
That appears-to-be-fearless man is climber Alex Honnold, known for his record-making free solo of El Capitan, who happens to have a functioning amygdala but seems to control his fear response when he needs to remain coolheaded, like, say, scaling a 2,307-metre monolith without ropes. Although not looking to conquer that kind of feat, Holland wanted the same overriding calm—and by the end of Nerve she manages to find some. “I’m feeling pretty resilient these days with everything going on,” says Holland. “It’s a scary time, but I’m glad I’m facing this pandemic with everything I learned from working on this book,” adding with a laugh, “rather than the way I was before.”